Pope Francis arrives to lead a general audience in Saint
Peter's Square at the Vatican. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
Pope Francis says the Catholic Church must shake off an
obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and
homosexuality or risk the collapse of its entire moral edifice,
"like a house of cards".
In a dramatically blunt interview with an Italian Jesuit
monthly, Francis said the Church had locked itself up in
"small things, in small-minded rules".
Its priests, he said, should be more welcoming and not cold,
dogmatic bureaucrats stuck in confessionals that sometimes
resembled "torture chambers."
Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, the
first from Latin America and the first Jesuit pope, did not
hold out the prospect of any changes soon to such moral
But, in the 12,000-word interview with Civilta Cattolica, he
said the Church must find a new balance between upholding
rules and demonstrating mercy. "Otherwise even the moral
edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of
His comments were welcomed by liberal Catholics; but they are
likely to be viewed with concern by conservatives who have
already expressed concern over Francis's failure to address
the issues stressed by his predecessor, Benedict.
In the interview with the magazine's director, Jesuit Father
Antonio Spadaro, he also said he envisioned a greater role
for women in the 1.2 billion member Church but suggested it
would not include a change in the current ban on a female
In a remarkable change from his predecessor Benedict, who
said homosexuality was an intrinsic disorder, Francis said
that when homosexuals told him they were always condemned by
the Church and felt "socially wounded", he told them "the
Church does not want to do this".
He re-stated his comments first made on the plane returning
from Brazil in July that he was not in a position to judge
gays who are of good will and in search of God.
In the interview released on Thursday, he added: "By saying
this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right
to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God
in creation has set us free. It is not possible to interfere
spiritually in the life of a person."
The Church, he said, should see itself as "a field hospital
after a battle" and try to heal the larger wounds of society
and not be "obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed
multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."
Francis' approach contrasts starkly with his conservative
predecessor Benedict, who stepped down in February.
The interview was not didactic and formal, such as those of
past popes, but easy-going, familiar and friendly. He even
spoke of his favourite author, Dostoevsky), painter,
Caravaggio and composer, Mozart.
John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public
Life, a liberal advocacy group in the United States, said:
"This pope is rescuing the Church from those who think that
condemning gay people and opposing contraception define what
it means to be a real Catholic.
"Francis is putting a message of mercy, justice and humility
back at the center of the church's mission. It's a remarkable
and refreshing change."
The interview took place over three sessions in August in his
simple quarters in a Vatican guest house where he has lived
since his election instead of the spacious papal apartments,
and was released simultaneously in translations by Jesuit
journals around the world.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay
marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not
possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I
was reprimanded for that," he said.
Just last week, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode
Island, spoke for many conservative Catholics when he said he
was disappointed that the pope had not addressed "the evil of
abortion" more directly in order to encourage anti-abortion
Francis stressed that while not tampering with Church
teachings, he suggested the Church had many other things to
concern itself with.
"But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about
them in a context. The teaching of the Church, for that
matter, is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not
necessary to talk about these issues all the time," he said.
Speaking specifically of homosexuals, he said:
"We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the
mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons,
and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It
is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens,
the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing."
The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual tendencies are
not sinful but homosexual acts are.
In several parts of the interview he stressed the need for
mercy and understanding by priests.
"The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in
which the Lord's mercy motivates us to do better," he said.
The pope also spoke about the role of women in the Church,
saying their "deep questions must be addressed".
"We must therefore investigate further the role of women in
the Church. We have to work harder to develop a profound
theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be
possible to better reflect on their function within the
Church," he said.
He hinted that he was open to giving women greater
decision-making roles in the Church.
"The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important
decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the
specific place of women also in those places where the
authority of the Church is exercised for various areas of the
Church," he said.
The Church teaches that woman cannot become priests because
Jesus willingly chose only men as his apostles. Proponents of
a female priesthood say he was only acting according to the
norms of his times.